Victoria Mueller will start her Thursday morning by undergoing her fifth surgery in just over three months, aimed at saving her left arm.
The way Mueller figures it, she’s going to be OK no matter what happens.
And why wouldn’t she think that way? After all, she’s already defied about every odd one could from the moment she realized what happened early on the morning of Oct. 1 in Wayne County, when she reached to call her mom after an auto accident on Interstate 64 west.
“My (left) hand was on my right leg, and the rest of it was on my left leg,” Mueller said last week.
This is a story of survival, grit, good cheer and love. It’s a unique story of a one-of-a-kind girl who has every reason to mope, but has instead faced this situation with the same determination that enabled her to start for the Johnston City football team during the first six weeks of her senior season.
As one of roughly 2,000 girls in America who play high school football, Victoria Mueller is in rare company.
"I do not want to die"
The hours before the accident were a typically busy day for Mueller, whose thirst for doing and ability to manage time allow her to follow a schedule most adults couldn’t.
She helped classmates build a float for the school’s homecoming parade, then went to her part-time job as a shift manager at Krispy Kreme in Marion. When that was done, Mueller hopped in her car and drove to a family bonfire.
The drive back should have taken just over an hour. However, Mueller fell asleep at the wheel and the vehicle veered into the median. It flipped several times.
“I went unconscious for a little while,” she said. “When I woke up, I was surrounded by my blood. My first thought was I do not want to die today. I was praying, ‘Do not let me die, please let someone see me.'”
Someone saw Mueller. It was a man pulling his car off the highway. Even better, he’d already called 911. Mueller got him to call her mom, Cindy Edwards.
Then a second vehicle arrived. A semi driver got out and cut Mueller’s hooded sweatshirt open. Soon, Mueller was airlifted to St. Louis Children’s Hospital for her first surgery, which grafted a blood vessel from her left leg to her arm.
In the days after, a second procedure debrided skin. That was followed by a third surgery to connect the arm, and a fourth one to successfully detach it. The medical team devised a way to protect the arm while enabling Mueller to perform everyday tasks such as showering.
Incredibly, during all that time in the hospital, Mueller lived life. In an emotional ceremony, Mueller was crowned homecoming queen, with football coach Dan Mings driving to St. Louis to crown her as her classmates watched on social media.
“Honestly, if I didn’t have the support I’ve had, I wouldn’t have such a positive outlook on everything,” she said. “They’ve kind of kept me on my feet.”
"Let me play basketball today"
A three-sport athlete who spent countless hours in the weight room to help earn playing time, the 5-foot-4, 150-pound Mueller could have been excused if she had just bagged her senior season on the basketball floor for medical reasons.
But Mueller wasn’t about to miss anything, even if it was a precious few minutes a game for an inexperienced team that could use her leadership. Following her fourth surgery, she asked the doctors if she could lace up the sneakers and play in games.
“I thought to myself, ‘I’m convincing him to let me play basketball today.’ He said he would brace (my arm) up and see how it goes from there,” Mueller said.
When Mueller got into a game, the gym cheered. She was understandably nervous. Her stats for a short stint were a turnover and a missed shot.
It is entirely possible no player cherished the chance to commit a turnover and miss a shot more than Mueller.
“It’s given me perspective and helped me appreciate everything that much more,” Mueller said. “I never thought in my lifetime I’d have to go through this. Playing basketball, even for only a couple of minutes, or lifting, it just goes through your mind.”
"I still have the opportunity"
For now, Mueller’s ambition to attend the U.S. Naval Academy is on hold, even though she won nominations from U.S. Congressman Mike Bost and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin.
But she is optimistic that if her arm can be saved, she can still go to Annapolis in August 2019. Meanwhile, she is taking classes at SIU and intends to finish at least a year of classes while also taking therapy.
Those plans could depend on how four surgeons can further fix her arm during Thursday's nine-hour procedure that begins at 5 a.m., when most of us will still be sleeping.
Either way, Mueller will process the outcome and figure out the next step. Then she’ll live life, just as she’s done for as long as anyone can remember.
“I’ll find a way to cope with it, or find a way to be OK with it,” Mueller said. “I went into the emergency room thinking I would lose my arm, and now I’m about to have my fifth surgery to save it.
“I want to go to the Academy. I know I still have the opportunity.”